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Reader Report From the World Cities Summit

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By Zufan*

Editor's Note: We encourage "Reader Reports" -- submissions from members of Worldchanging's global audience who volunteer to write up their notes from conferences, workshops and other worldchanging happenings they participate in. If you'd like to contribute your own report, please email editor@worldchanging.com.

There is a sense of urgency among city planners around the globe. With more people moving into the cities, urban density will exceed what has been experienced in the West. Stresses will appear on the F.E.W. (food-energy-water) equation and commodity and utility prices will rocket. And most planners now recognize that the U.S. and Europe’s path of development--consuming resources disproportionate to their size--is a bankrupt model.

At the inaugural World Cities Summit held last month in Singapore, city leaders convened on the topic of "Livable and Vibrant Cities," with the goal of sharing best practices and experience on livability, sustainable development, and future areas of city to city cooperation.

The window of change is small. China’s increasing demands on commodities like corn and oil are expected to lead to skyrocketing prices around the world, and its demands for green technology such as solar panels may shrink supply and become a barrier to other developing nations purchasing clean tech. But the growing demand for new technologies also presents well-prepared cities with a terrific market opportunity. It is in the interest of the rest of East Asian cities, and other world cities, to start before China does.

How can a city provide her citizens – and citizens of the world – with a future that is simultaneously prosperous, attractive, sustainable and accessible to all? The Worldchanging audience is already familiar with concepts like leapfrog development and new green technologies. But Summit attendees favored three other components to building livable cities: a strong, holistic approach to governance; high density and growth; and improving each city's quality of place.

Good Governance
The majority of summit attendees agreed that investing in governance was a stronger long-term strategy than investing in technologies. An effective governance system would provide the stability and stamina required to seek out best practices in urban planning and resource management, take unpopular decisions (like removing subsidies) to shift social consumption habits, and sculpt a city towards economic growth. Pulling all this into a self sustaining system is the work of decades, but several best cases of strong governing strategy have already emerged. I will highlight two examples discussed at the conferece: water management in Singapore, and public-private partnership for disaster readiness in the Tokyo-Yokohama corridor.

In his opening address to the summit, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed his hope that sound water management practices could overcome the stress of water scarcity. He encouraged cities to adopt similarly creative, holistic approaches to energy and food. Singapore’s water management experience was borne out of political necessity. Singapore's reservoir system has capacity to meet only 60% of daily water needs. The remaining amount had to be imported from neighboring Malaysia, and the Malaysian government used the water as a political tool to pressure Singapore on bilateral issues. Since 1988, the Singapore government had been monitoring the possibility of recycling sewage water, but it wasn't until 2000 that new membrane technologies made the process affordable. Previous water treatment methods used high-pressure membranes that were costly and energy intensive, but the new membranes work well in low pressures, saving energy and operating costs. By 2011, recycled sewage water -- now called Newater -- may supply 20 percent of Singapore’s water supply. The private sector has also constructed a desalination plant expected to supply 30 percent of Singapore’s water supply by 2011. Desalination is famously energy intensive, and Singapore is investing in researching cheaper ways to make seawater drinkable. Singapore may be able to move towards a state of self-sufficiency in water.

According to mayor Hiroshi Nakada, Yokohama city has devised an innovative public-private partnership for disaster readiness. Like a triage system, the private sector takes on the first segment of uninjured but disrupted city residents. Logistics companies would arrange for warehouses to shelter the homeless; convenience stores would provide ready food, water and toilet facilities; veterinarians would treat dogs and cats; and so on. The private sector would also provide for the dead: casket companies would provide coffins and dry ice for transporting bodies. The city government would focus on residents injured or trapped in collapsed houses requiring firefighters, medical personnel and other municipal resources. The companies would claim their expenses back, at cost, from the city at a later date. The city benefits through a lighter burden during a disaster, and companies also benefit from goodwill generated.

The challenge is to systematically share these best practices from Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo etc quickly on a larger scale, to make it more widespread and not just within China, but all over the world.

High Density/High Growth
World Bank Director Christian Delvoie pointed out that despite the many problems facing highly urbanized cities, the solution is not about giving up growth. East Asian city leaders have chosen the high urbanization density/high growth model for largely economic reasons: At a 7 percent growth rate, countries can double their income every 10 years. The fastest an agricultural society has been shown to grow is 4 percent, and many East Asian countries are agriculturally inefficient, growing less even than that. To consistently grow above 7 percent, the tried and tested route is to embrace intensive urbanization, and East Asian city leaders see intensive urbanization as their evolving future. (Danny Leipziger, Vice Chair of the Growth Commission, also spoke briefly about a report, released by the Commission in May, identifying 17 ingredients for sustainable high growth.)

Successfully managing growth requires politicians to take a long view, often spanning several generations. For example, for China to achieve a GDP level equivalent to the USA’s today, it will take roughly 50 years. To lesser degrees, other East Asian cities have also opted for high governance/control to manage this multi-generational transformation.


Quality of Place
Sustainable technology and economy alone is still not enough to fuel a thriving city. Cities gain or lose worldwide talent through what in Richard Florida, author of the book ‘Rise of the Creative Class,’ book calls "quality of place". The central theme is that the creative classes move to cities that get quality of place right, and companies flock towards these cities to tap talent, creating jobs and economic growth.

City planners have to include the many components of quality of place into urban planning from the upfront. Fundacion Metropoli president Alfonso Vegara gave several spirited examples. Philadelphia 30 years ago had lost its way. Even though it had the largest concentration of universities in the USA, students would leave for better cities after graduation. Philadelphia’s city planners created an Avenue of Arts that intersected with an Avenue of technology to anchor the creative classes to stay in the city. The presence of this creative class attracted companies looking for depth and breadth of talent to make Philadelphia home.

Dublin’s Digital Hub Development Agency concentrated mixed hubs of overlapping creative-class activities: digital media, universities, technology, banking and arts, to create a powerful mix of talent.

Barcelona uses large scale events to frequently rehabilitate the city. The city is relatively well known for using the 1992 Olympics as an opportunity to focus political/policy/financial/social will to reinvent the city. They also used the 2004 Forum of cultures to add another layer of development outside the city by anchoring new technology parks around small villages rich in Mediterranean culture, attracting talent.

*The author uses a pseudonym. He can be reached at zu.fan.san [at] gmail [dot] com.

Photo credit: Flickr/aymanshamma, licensed by Creative Commons

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